Bird of the Month - March 2020

Each month, Birds Queensland highlights a Bird of the Month. To learn more about our Queensland birds, make sure you return to this page each month to read about the featured species.

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Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo (Cacatua Galerita) "Hello Cocky"

Article: Jill Brown

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos need no introduction. They are among the most conspicuous and charismatic birds in Australia. These raucous larrikins, once restricted to the bush, are now following the national demographic trends and becoming more urbanised. They are a common, if not always welcome, sight in most Australian cities. We often watch a flock of up to 60 flying west along our valley in the late afternoon to roost in the foothills of Mt Coot-tha, having fed in local trees and parks and often in bird feeders during the day.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos visiting our verandah
Sulphur-crested Cockatoos visiting our verandah
© I. & J. Brown

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and intelligence in conquering the urban environment. Lucy Aplin from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour has been researching their behaviour in Sydney. Some Cockatoos have learned to open the lids of wheelie bins, and to pass that skill to others. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-09-01/ cockatoos-in-bins-animal-culture-off-track/11439076) They do this by lifting the front corner and holding it up, gradually raising it as they walk along the edge towards the hinge. When they get to a certain point, they flip the lid back and open. They then leap in and hurl the contents out onto the ground where they can be searched and plundered by the rest of the group. They have been reported removing bricks and other weights from bin lids, removing bird spikes from buildings so they could return to favoured roosts and turning on drinking fountains when they are thirsty. Where the fountains have taps, some have learned to wait for a human to help by turning on the water!

Clever as these behaviours are, they don't always endear them to their urban neighbours. Worse, they are prone to using their immensely powerful bills to nibble window and door frames, decks and outdoor furniture. Western red cedar is apparently a great favourite! They are also adept at removing grout and silicone seals from windows. These activities are not related to food, just to filling in a Cockatoo's day in an environment which possibly provides food much more easily and quickly than the bush, and to keeping its bill at an appropriate length.

Thirsty Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
Thirsty Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
© I. & J. Brown

A quick look at eBird does not help in determining when the city invasion took place. I don't remember them being common in inner Brisbane in the 1970's. Clearly, the numbers have increased since then. According to eBird, we live in a Cockatoofree area. There would not have been a single day in the past 10 years when we did not see or hear Cockatoos, but we, like many others, do not record our backyard birds on eBird!

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are hollow-nesters, so presumably suffer from the lack of large old tree-hollows. They have been known to nest in excavations in earth banks and cliffs. They breed between May and September, usually near water. The clutch size is 2, with both parents incubating. The chicks fledge at about 8 weeks and are fed by their parents for several months after that.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo searching for grubs
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo searching for grubs
© I. & J. Brown

They eat seeds, nuts, berries, flowers, bulbs and even insects. They often feed on the ground. They are very partial to the cones on our hoop pine (araucaria cunninghamii), scattering more than they eat! In Sydney, they frequent urban parks and harass picnickers for handouts. In the Royal Botanic Gardens, where Cockatoos are very common and very bold, some have been wing-tagged with large yellow tags and people have been encouraged to report sightings using an app - another example of citizen-assisted science.

They are long-lived birds. In captivity they have a similar lifespan to humans. It is difficult to estimate their lifespan in the wild, though over 20 years would be a conservative estimate. Because of this, and the fact they are large and smart enough to have relatively few predators, they may not need to breed often.

Cockatoos have always been very popular as pets. The days when almost every house had a pet bird have fortunately passed, though Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are still sold as pets, now hopefully captive bred rather than plundered from the wild.

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